Sunday, October 31, 2010

Prehistoric Concert Halls

An intriguing development that has been under consideration lately is the use of ancient caves as “concert halls.” Our Paleolithic ancestors may have known a lot more about acoustics and music than we have given them credit for. French archaeologists Iegor Reznikoff and Michel Dauvois have, since 1983, carried out investigations of the acoustics inside caves that contain Paleolithic art dating between 25,000 and 15,000 years ago (mainly in Europe), and have found a remarkable correlation of art with resonance. They have also detected impact marks where stalactites were intentionally struck to possibly create specific musical tones (i.e., thus becoming lithophones). Indeed, many other types of instruments as mentioned in my last post, have been found in such caves. Their analysis of the results has led them to speculate that these decorated caves may have been the backdrops for religious and magic rituals.

This brings us to another legacy from our prehistoric ancestors and that is the concept of “sacred space.” The Rhino Cave itself was a sacred space. Until another discovery comes along, it is apparently the oldest probable sacred space yet found for anatomically modern Homo sapiens (other older spaces have been found belonging to Neanderthals).

Religious scholar Mircea Eliade was the first to propose that, for what he called religious people, the world is divided into two kinds of space, the sacred and the profane. Profane space is the ordinary space in which we live and go about our daily activities free of all reference to a larger reality. Sacred space is experienced differently. When one enters a sacred space, he or she acts in accordance with the environment (e.g., in a church or temple one might bow, genuflect, or remove a hat or speak in whispers). Eliade claimed that before modern times, “archaic people” established towns, built sanctuaries, and organized space and time with reference to the sacred. In those ancient times, the choice of location for a sacred space might have been simply due to a fortuitous sign (e.g., hilltops, because they were closer to the gods), or it might have been planned as a result of some specific ritual. Today, as Catherine Bell, one of the world's foremost scholars on ritual points out, a specific space or location is made sacred by the ritual-like activities that take place within it. These “modern” sacred spaces are differentiated from profane spaces “by means of distinctive acts and responses and the way they evoke experiences of a greater, higher, or more universalized reality—the group, the nation, humankind, the power of God, or the balance of the cosmos.” Thus today, sacred space may be a church, but it also may be a historic site, a natural geographic site (e.g., Niagara Falls or even a cave), or a built environment such as a stadium, city streets, or a conference center.

But back to prehistpric caves. Most modern Homo sapiens sites are from the Cro-Magnon people who moved into Europe with the final migration out of Africa, arriving in Western Europe around 30,000 years ago. Of the many such caves, Chauvet, France ranks among the most spectacular. It is so far one of the only, and certainly the oldest, to also contain what might be considered an obvious ritual artifact. Deep in the north end of the cave is located a small, altar-like flat rock that had presumably fallen from the ceiling. A bear skull had been set on top of it, and the remains of a small fire lay behind it. More than thirty calcite-covered and intentionally placed bear skulls surrounded the slab. This location, deep within the cave, is indicative of the “sacred center,” similar to an altar, identified by Thomas Barrie as a major “destination” of the path through a sacred space.

More than this, though, is the overt representation of what appears to be a religion. In sacred spaces today, this might be stained glass, wall frescoes, or a crucifix in a modern Christian church but, in the Rhino Cave, it just might be the python, a natural geological formation fortuitously located in the cave. However, in the later caves in France, like Chauvet (dated from 30,000 to 32,000 years ago), this representation takes the form of spectacular cave art. It is the general interpretation of this art by multiple experts that has led them to the conclusion that it is of shamanic origin. This means one of two things. Either the art was painted by a shaman during a trance and intended to be his vision of his out-of-body experience; or, it was a version of what he saw during the trance but painted after as a recollection of the experience. Nobody knows for sure, and undoubtedly, more information will surface in the near future.

In summary, all this leads to a fascinating conclusion. Ancient caves in Europe, pre-dated by others much older, such as the Rhino Cave in Botswana, were very likely the prehistoric equivalent of sacred spaces such as modern-day cathedrals, complete with ceremonies full of ritual and music.

  • Barrie, T. (1996). Spiritual Path, Sacred Place: Myth, Ritual, and Meaning in Architecture. Boston: Shambhala Publications, Inc.
  • Bell, C. (1997). Ritual: Perspectives and Dimensions. NY: Oxford University Press. pp. 138-169.
  • Eliade, M. (1964). Shamanism: archaic techniques of ecstasy. New York: Pantheon Books. Originally published as Le Chamanisme et les techniques archaïques de l'extase. Paris: Librairie Payot, 1951.
  • Fagan, B. (1998). From Black Land to Fifth Sun: The Science of Sacred Sites. Reading, MA: p. 23.
  • Greeley, A.M. (1995). Sociology and Religion: A Collection of Readings. New York: Harper Collins College Publishers. pp. 94-105.
  • Jones, C.B. (2007). Introduction to the Study of Religion, Part 2 of 2. Chantilly, VA: The Teaching Company. pp. 112-126.
  • Than, K. (2008). Stone Age Art Caves May Have Been Concert Halls. National Geographic News, July 2. Retrieved August 20, 2008, from
  • Stix, G. (2008). Traces of a Distant Past. Scientific American, July. pp. 56-63. 
  • The Cave of Chauvet-Pont-d’Arc. Sep. 17, 2008.
  • Wingerson, L. (2008). Rock Music: Remixing the Sounds of the Stone Age. Archaeology. September-October. pp. 46-50.


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